How Did Poultry Taste 300 Years Ago? An Interview with Maciej Nowicki
During this year's edition of the Jeju Food and Wine Festival, Maciej Nowicki, Head Chef in the Museum of King Jan III's Palace at Wilanów will reveal the secrets of old Polish cuisine to the Korean audience. In the interview with Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, Maciej Nowicki talks about the culinary re-enactment. He has been exploring the secrets of the old Polish cuisine and the recipes from the oldest Polish cookbook, Compendium Ferculorum by Stanisław Czerniecki, for several years. Few years ago the book was edited by Professor Jarosław Dumanowski and Magdalena Spychaj and recently published also in English translation.
Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux: You have been reconstructing old recipes for the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów for years. Now, for several weeks, you have been introducing bloggers, chefs and culinary journalists to the culinary re-enactment, as part of an innovative project carried out by the Musem. What kind of project is it?
Maciej Nowicki: Smaki Wisły, Cztery Pory Roku (editor's translation: Tastes of Wisła: Four Seasons) is a socially-oriented educational project addressed to bloggers and culinary media. The programme is interdisciplinary in nature and combines historical recipes with contemporary culinary trends. As part of the programme run by the Museum, a part of the palace garden has been made available to the project participants, who will plant there seedlings of selected plants. We will use them later during our workshops. A part of each of the eight workshop’s meetings will be a lecture delivered by the Museum employees and invited specialists.
What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in culinary re-enactment?
It depends on who is asking and who is answering. For a historian, the priority is to recreate the taste and appearance of dishes as accurately as possible – the best term to describe this approach would be 'reconstruction'. A chef would rather try to reconcile the taste and aesthetics of historical dishes with the contemporary culinary sensitivity, most likely with the emphasis on the latter. For a re-enactor / educator the aim will be finding balance between the two above mentioned approaches. Questions are determined by nationality, age and backgroud of the inquirer, and especially by their ability to situate the subject (in this case a dish) in a specific historical context. A chef should keep the interpreted recipe in perspective, especially if it comes from one of the oldest cookbooks that were not systematic in today's sense of the word... In my case too literal attempts to interpret historical recipes always ended in disappointments. Our taste buds in the past-present relation sometimes have more to do with art than craft. In the end, however, you have to work through a lot of dishes, preferably in several countries, and gain enough experience to feel at ease in dealing with different ingredients. Also the awareness of the origin of the difference in the selection of flavours’ combinations seems very important to me.
So, an inexperienced cook should not try culinary re-enactment?
For sure it would be harder for them to understand certain aspects. But in the end it all comes down to the passion for culinary art. Someone who has a knack for it and cooks with passion and commitment will not have any problems. As in everything else, talent and practice are less important than simple curiosity. I know a lot of people who have little to do with cooking and culinary re-enactment, but they are great at it.
Do you mean that they rely on their own taste and do not need any special education in this area? Because you are a historian...
Of course not. Their path will certainly be a bit harder and longer, but it will eventually lead them somewhere. It is good to be aware though that their reconstructions will be less accurate. Each reconstruction of a recipe from, for example, Stanisław Czerniecki's Compendium Ferculorum, can be called a re-enactment. However, a historian will evaluate a dish in terms of accuracy of reading the source (ingredients’ selection, thermal processing methods etc.), while a student of a cooking school or a participant of culinary workshops will judge it in terms of taste and appearance.
Can we recreate old tastes, get close to them?
We can certainly get close to them, but definitely not recreate them exactly. In the late seventeenth century recipes looked different than now. First of all, they were not as precise as today. They included a list of basic ingredients and usually a rather casual description of the culinary procedure. Secondly, unfortunately the lack of measurements makes us unable to know what exactly King Jan III Sobieski ate in such-and-such year, but we can get a general idea. We should remember that what we do is a cultural implication. When conducting re-enactment workshops I often use comparisons, for example sweet flag – ginger.
What are the most important differences? The texture of dishes, or maybe used ingredients, such as vegetables?
Especially the first one is problematic. From the perspective of today's culinary sensitivity, a lot of old recipes seem to make little sense, such as a seventeenth-century fried eel recipe, according to which the eel should be first boiled, then fried coated in flour and served with bay leaves and sour oranges. In this way, the texture of a very delicate fish, first boiled and then fried in butter, will be a far cry from the today's concepts of culinary art. We have to focus on the taste rather than on the method of obtaining it. So, we could marinate the fish in sour orange juice, then fry it or boil in the same juice with a little sugar and a bay leaf. In this way, we would keep the essence of the taste, but giving up some of the culinary procedures would mean abandoning history.
The ingredients are another important thing. For example, how do we know what kind of the Canarian wine the author is talking about? Or what does he mean by describing it as 'exquisite'? How did the poultry taste 300 years ago? Which carrot variety tastes similar to that used in Sobieski's times? Most of such questions will remain unanswered, and your question proves that to approach the topic seriously we should undertake interdisciplinary work. Therefore, it is good to consult some recipes with a biologist, ethnologist or ichthyologist. We should also note that, apart from the ingredients and the method, there is a whole world of different definitions of food and its classification, with dish names such as 'brain groats' or 'fish bigosek' (literally 'little bigos'), etc.
Haven’t you thought about writing a cookbook based on reconstruction of historical recipes, possible to recreate at home, today?
Yes, I have been thinking about it, but I am trying to address the topic in two ways. Next year the book you are asking about will be released. It will be a contemporary interpretation of recipes from Wojciech Wielądko's cookbook Kucharz Doskonały (editor’s translation: The Perfect Cook). I tried to keep it as simple as possible, so that no one has problems cooking by it at home, for example finding the ingredients. The dishes contain only a few ingredients, so the book is a kind of introduction to the culinary re-enactment. Apart from that, for over 2 years I have been working on another book with slightly more complex recipes, both in terms of ingredients, palette of flavours, and historical periods. I would like to start in the 16th century, stopping at the 1930s.
And it surely will be a substantive thing, based on factual knowledge, not just anecdotes?
Yes, I would like to expand the narrative part and explain why I have used a certain method, why I have replaced a certain ingredient with another one, or what can be omitted if necessary to keep the general meaning. And finally, I would like to explain what I mean by 'meaning’'in the culinary art. I would like to introduce my strategy of working with old recipes.
Please tell us something more about that.
Very often I have to make choices. For example, when I reconstruct an original recipe of four or five ingredients, which, from our point of view, are mutually exclusive, I choose the ones I find most representative. I have to cope with the problem by making some adjustments to the recipe by, for example, putting a certain ingredient in a side dish instead of in a meat main course. Time is another thing that matters. I recreate every recipe several times. On some of them, my favourite ones, I have been working for many years, always making changes and playing with them.
Is the Baroque era and the seventeenth-century cuisine your favourite when it comes to culinary re-enactment? The one so difficult to understand because it is so distant in terms of time and culture, or maybe some other period in the history of culinary art?
I like the Baroque cuisine, but I do not deny being fascinated by the culinary art of the late nineteenth century and the things that were going on in Polish cuisine in the interwar period.
What is so fascinating about Polish cuisine of that time?
It was probably the most diverse period in the entire history of our cuisine. In the menu of this period, classical Polish dishes described by cookbook authors such as Jan Szyttler, Anna Ciundziewicka and Antoni Teslar coexist with exquisite ingredients of European cuisine (oysters, champagne), and goose neck stuffed with beef tripe appears side by side with truffles! Pure madness.
But that cuisine is culturally quite close to ours, so recreating the recipes of that period is not a proper culinary re-enactment, is it?
Of course, you are right, but for me it is the last period somehow connected to the seventeenth and nineteenth-century cuisine. We can see a continuity, trace a cause-and-effect chain, which can be clearly seen in the evolution of sauces, for example. This is a very interesting part of my work with old recipes. Tracking the history of particular dishes, studying how they evolved, acquiring the characteristics of European and world cuisine. For example, it can be seen in high class delicatessen products described in the fantastic book by Antoni Teslar.
Such as great snacks for example, after all Poland was a cultural melting pot in that time...
Exactly. In the interwar period, ethnic Poles constituted about 65 percent of the society. There were strong influences of Jewish, Ukrainian, German, to some extent also Hungarian, and of course French cuisine. So, if I had to choose the most interesting period in our cuisine in terms of colours and flavours, it would probably be the interwar period.
Are young chefs interested in culinary re-enactment, or, to put it bluntly, in tinkering with old recipes, including very old ones, such as those from the book Staropolskie przepisy kulinarne. Receptury rozproszone z XVI-XVIII w. (editor’s translation: Old Polish Culinary Recipes: Scattered Recipes from the 16th–18th Centuries), published by the Museum, which is full of surprising recipes?
All books of the Monumenta Poloniae Culinaria series met with great interest. We are witnessing a trend of going back to the roots of Polish cuisine and the broadly understood 'culture of the table'. As a community, however, we still have a lot of work to do. There are still very few people professionally involved in historical cuisine, but I am convinced that it will change dynamically over time. I am looking forward to the moment when all the knowledge we are talking about now will blend in with the identity of an ordinary Pole's taste.
Should we even like the taste of the reconstructed dishes? Or maybe we should not judge the old cuisine and its flavours from our point of view at all?
This is a very interesting and inspiring question. I will answer as at the beginning of our conversation: it depends on who is asking.
We should ask ourselves how accurate we should be in the case of, for example, workshops for children and young people. Will the children like the onion soup from Compendium Ferculorum? Probably not. To achieve our goals in education, we have to speak the same language, which is an element of persuasive communication. We should use as many ingredients known to children as possible, so that they find the taste familiar, and convey the message of a museum lesson through other means, for example by the use of spices, or the combination of honey and vinegar.
Working with students of cooking schools is a completely different thing, because the expectations towards understanding the subject are different. In this case dishes should inspire, provoke questions, encourage to search for comparisons and analogies in what we call today's culinary sensitivity. Yet another thing is cooking for people with a solid background in the culinary arts. I allow myself more bold combinations, more spices, but also more free choice of ingredients. And finally, there is the entire culinary industry. Evaluation and generalisation is necessary to digest this forgotten knowledge, to help some of its elements influence the menu of an average Polish restaurant. All you need is to want it and keep trying.
Do children participating in the re-enactment workshops like any of the dishes?
Yes, they like many recipes, for example fish cooked in milk with onion and cinnamon, all kinds of puddings, both savoury and sweet. They also like arkas – milk jelly served with various seasoning (a seventeenth-century recipe).
How about the beer soup children used to be fed with?
Well, it does have the bitterness of beer. First of all, it should be made of a proper kind of beer. Back in the past, another kind of beer was used. There are various kinds of sauces in the old Polish cuisine to which beer was added, such as so-called ‘grey sauce’ based on dark beer with addition of honey, raisins, almonds, vegetable stock and gingerbread. This is a very difficult combination, a real challenge for a chef. This is not an obvious palette of flavours even for adults, so we cannot expect all today's children to like it. We should plant a seed of curiosity and then raise it.
It turns out that very old things are actually new and interesting.
I think there is something in it. Most of us find unknown recipes interesting. Discovering their potential to be combined with other recipes in what we call a final dish, makes them complete.
Translated by A.W., 4th May 2018